“Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue”
—Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
In the final months of World War II, as the war in Europe drew to a close Allied military forces shifted their focus on forcing Japan to surrender. The Imperial Navy and Army were suffering major defeats across the Pacific and the main island of Japan, Kyushu, was being bombed weekly by the long range B-29 American bombers known as, “Superfortresses”. However, Japan did “not surrender; bound by a rigid moral code they fought and died by the thousands, seeking an honorable death over a dishonorable life. The American Marines that had already assaulted islands such as Saipan, Tinian, and Guam were familiar with the die-hard fighting style of the Japanese. The United States Admiral, Chester W. Nimitz, launched an offensive in which he captured only islands of large strategic value and avoided islands that would be costly in Allied lives and resources. This strategy of “Island Hopping”, as it was called by Nimitz, led U.S. forces to the Bonin Islands where Iwo Jima is located.
Iwo Jima is an ugly, eight mile square speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. While its only major feature is a 565-foot peak, known as Mount Surabachi, the island does have two airfields. As the U.S. conquest in the Pacific continued, Admiral Nimitz saw the importance of capturing the airfields for two reasons. One reason was to stop Japanese fighters from attacking the U.S. Mariana airfields and harassing B-29 bombers making runs on the Japanese Home Islands. The second reason was that if the U.S. controlled the airfields they could serve as an emergency landing strip for B-29s returning from sorties over Japan that were damaged or had mechanical problems. Like their American counterparts the Japanese also saw the importance of the island and its airfields and prepared their defenses accordingly. Within Mount Surabachi and underneath the rest of the island the Japanese garrison of more than 23,000 men dug out into the volcanic rock a series of elaborate fortifications. They created miles of tunnels and hundreds of bunkers, machine-gun nests, pillboxes, heavy artillery positions, batteries, and sniper posts. Thus, the months of preliminary bombardment by the U.S. Air Force and the three day bombardment by the Navy did little damage to the protected Japanese positions, and when the Marines assaulted the island the Japanese were ready and waiting.
Japanese fortifications on Iwo Jima
The invasion occurred on February 19, 1945 and as the Marines from the 5th Amphibious Corps, which was composed of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions. When they landed they met no resistance. The first wave piled up on the beach and eventually orders were given to move up to make way for incoming waves of Marines. As Marine Units proceeded slowly inland armed with a false sense of security, the Japanese were watching them through the sights of their guns, waiting for the order to fire. The order was eventually given by the commanding officer of the Japanese Garrison, Lieutenant General Tadamishi Kuribayashi, allowing Marines to land on the beaches for one hour. The uneasy quiet that pervaded the island was suddenly broken and the previously routine landings on the beach quickly dissolved into chaos. In a matter of seconds landing craft were destroyed, tanks were consumed by the explosions of direct hits, and men were obliterated in front of their friends, as a result of enemy mortars, gunfire, and shells. More and more Marine units piled up onto the beach, pinned by a deadly crossfire of Japanese guns. They were quickly becoming sitting ducks and were mowed down at the leisure of the defenders. Despite all confusion and horror in the landing zones, small pockets of Marines started to push onwards, attacking Japanese positions with a combination of grenades, flamethrowers, and unrelenting fire. To move was tolive and it soon became apparent that those who stayed on the beaches would not be alive for very long. With this mentality the invasion force made slow progress inland, fighting at night under the waning light of flares and bursts of star shells which illuminated the dead and dying. In 36 days the island would be declared secure at the cost of almost 7,000 American lives and 28,000 casualties. The Japanese forces were decimated and of the original 23,000 defenders only around 1,000 were taken alive, the rest were killed in action.
Photograph of the American landings on February 19, 1945
Wounded Marines being tended to by Corpsmen
Once under U.S. control, the island’s airfields proved their worth, seeing more than 2,400 B-29s perform emergency landings and saving the lives of 24,000 U.S. airmen. In addition, the island would serve as a base of operations for the last invasion in the Pacific Theatre of War, the invasion of Okinawa. With the incalculable importance of Iwo Jima in helping to end the War and the legacy of bravery, courage, and uncommon valorleft by the Marines who fought there it is no surprise that one of the world’s most famous icons was created on the island. The icon is a world famous picture taken by an Associated Press Photographer, Joe Rosenthal. The picture is of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising an American flag on the summit Mount Surabachi. The soldiers’ names are Cpl. Harlon Block, Navy Pharmacist’s Mate John Bradley, Cpl. Rene Gagnon, PFC Franklin Sousley, Sgt. Michael Strank, and Cpl. Ira Hayes. Tragically before the fight to take Iwo Jima ended three of the men in the picture, Block, Strank, and Sousley would die, but their names and actions would go down in history along with every other man who fought on that island. Around one quarter of the Medals of Honor (the highest military award for bravery in the U.S.) earned by Marines in World War II were given to men who saw action on Iwo Jima. Also, the Marine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery is a sculpture depicting the scene in which the six men raised the American flag over Mount Surabachi honoring their timeless struggle once again.
B-29 after an emergency landing on Iwo Jima
U.S. Landing Plans, Invasion of Iwo Jima
Dedicated to all the Marines who fought and to those who died on Iwo Jima; your bravery will never be forgotten.
Flag Raising atop Mount Surabachi, February 23 1945. (Photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal, Associated Press)